Chapter 34: Hijinxs at “The Shack” and High Jumps on the Field

Summary: Polo becomes a family sport for the Dazeys, who are regulars at the Uplifters Ranch. A party at Marion Davies’ new beach mansion begins with a bizarre prank and ends with confusion over two identical bathrooms.

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While we’d been East, The Uplifters had gone for polo in a really big way. Charlie Wrightsman, the Texas oil millionaire, had joined and brought in a string of some thirty ponies, the finest in the land. Hal Roach and Will Rogers played enthusiastically and had top ponies, too. Will’s favorite mount, “Bootlegger,” is still remembered as one of the great ponies of the game. Jim Colt, lanky and daring, had become the club professional. And Eric Pedley and Elmer Boeseke often were guest players.

Of course, all this drove Frank into a wild frenzy. He didn’t feel like paying the thousand dollars that a really good pony cost, so he acquired a collection of what he called “goats,” horses that had speed and jaws of iron. One that had been a fine animal in his time was so brittle with age he could be used only one chukker a game. And there was a little sorrel beauty that had the uncomfortable habit of sitting down every time Frank put him into a sharp turn.

Also there was Pinto. This darling, Frank declared self-righteously, he bought solely on my account. “I’ve watched you play in the Saturday girls’ games,” he said, “and you’re terrible. Now this pony will really teach you the game. And don’t worry about the money. I’m going to write a polo yarn for pictures and be the first amateur ever to make money out of the sport. “

Pinto! This beauty had great black blotches on shiny white hide. I loved this animal more than any other I’ve ever owned. Though he was technically a “cold blood,” I’m sure some thoroughbred stallion must have roamed the far Sonoran Desert Region where he was born. The story ran that, as a colt, he was too smart to let himself get roped, and was almost eight before a determined and horse-wise gaucho caught him. Then a young Irish lad, Aiden Roark, later to become one of the great players of the world, chanced upon him at a cattle roundup, picked him up for a song, and with an Irishman’s knowledge about horses, taught him the game.

Soon, Pinto was showing me the ropes in my Saturday games. Young Mitchell, aged five, was riding him in Snowy Baker’s weekday equestrian classes. And, on Sunday afternoons, Frank would take him out on the field and pit him against some of the finest horseflesh in the country. Pinto didn’t have the speed of the top ponies, but he was handy as a pocket in a shirt, and Frank scored his share of goals. Also, he was so tough Frank could play him for three chukkers instead of the usual one or two.

The games at the Uplifters were high-spirited and “western.” Except for having an eye almost put out, Frank never got really hurt, but two of his good friends, Winslow Felix and loveable Jim Colt, were killed on the field.

For relaxation after the tension of the games, the polo crowd would give parties. Wondrous parties. On the Uplifters Ranch is one of the finest live oak groves in California. Dinners would be served on long tables beneath these giant trees. Sometimes it would be Hal and Margaret Roach who were hosts, or Irene Wrightsman. Sometimes the hosts were Phyllis Brunson and Marion Pringle, those lovely sisters whose father had owned the land that became Hollywood. There’d be huge fillets of beef, cooked by a white-capped chef over great barbecue pits. Giant candles, in rows down the center of the tables, gave a warm and welcoming glow, and waiters, bearing cocktails and mugs of hot mulled wine, dashed in from the surrounding dark.

So now we had two crowds to keep up with. Our picture friends and the polo gang. And, as if that wasn’t enough, it was about this time that Marion Davies’ “beach shack” became part of the Hollywood social scene. This “shack,” a cozy little palace of some fifty rooms, took up several hundred feet of valuable beach frontage. There were two tennis courts and, though the ocean was only a few feet away, a great tiled salt-water swimming pool, crossed by a delicate white Parian marble bridge. In case Marion’s parties overflowed, as they were likely to do, there was a large and elaborate guesthouse. Of course, there was also a separate cottage for the servants. But what impressed Frank and me most was the white-pillared mansionette to house Marion’s Great Danes.

Frank and I went to a dinner at “the shack” before installations were quite complete. It was one of Marion’s smaller parties, with only thirty guests. And, as often happened, after dinner Mr. Hearst suggested charades, which he loved. With Charlie Chaplin, Norma Shearer, Jack Gilbert, Joan Crawford, and a host of other stars, it was a safe guess that these charades would be well acted. However, Frank disappeared before we started. Ray Long, the famous Cosmopolitan editor and Roy Howard, chief of the Scripps Howard Press, were at the party that night and, long after the charades were over, I found Frank talking with them in a far corner of the library.

“Come on home,” I said. “Gosh, do you know how late it is?”

Marion, coming in the door just then, overheard me. “It is late, Aggie,” she said. “T-T-tell you what—you and F-F-frank spend the night here.”

“But Marion, we haven’t brought any nightclothes, “ I said.

“Th-th-that’s all right,” said Marion. “I’ll s-s-send a car for them.”

“Okay,” said Frank. “But you don’t have to send a car. We have a driver outside.”

So a footman went to tell Olaf to bring our nightclothes from our own house. As this was only a mile away, there was no reason for us to not go home. But who could resist Marion? We were ushered into a great room with a huge antique bed.

“Wonder what king or cardinal slept in this one,” Frank said. “And look at the chairs and the table. Just like San Simeon, every darned bit of furniture’s a genuine antique.”

“Thank goodness the springs and mattresses aren’t antiques,” I said. “I can sure sleep tonight. And, Frank, you know that polo story you wrote, and thought the studio had forgotten about? Jack Conway told me tonight they’re going to do it with Bill Haines.”

“Huh?” said Frank. “They haven’t even talked to me about the price yet. How can they go into production?”

“Jack says they are, though. He says they’re going to start in a couple of weeks.”

(Editor’s note: A polo movie was made in 1928, The Smart Set, directed by Jack Conway and starring Bill Haines. Jack may have thought Frank was the writer, but he is not given credit for it on IMDb.)

“I’ll believe it when I see the check.” Frank pretended to be indifferent, but I knew it would mean a lot to him to sell a story to my company. He hadn’t worked at a studio since that terrible ordeal when we’d both had jobs at the same time. And, while he’d had two good plays on Broadway, they hadn’t been successes. And, with certain Hollywood types, success is all that counts. Lately, people would come up to him and say, grinning slyly as though it were a huge joke, “Why, hello, Mr. Johnston.” Selling a story on his own would put an end to that sad brand of comedy.

Now Frank threw off his clothes and went into the bathroom. Then almost immediately called out, “Hey Aggie! Ring for the maid. I can’t find towels or toilet paper in here.”

“There must be,” I said. “Marion’s housekeeper never slips up on anything.” I went into the bathroom with its great square tub and fancy shower, looked through all the cabinets, and even pounded at the walls. I was sure that the accessories must be concealed by some modern invisible design. But the bathroom, for all its sumptuousness, was absolutely bare. “I just can’t ring for a maid this late,” I told Frank. “Olaf stuck a box of facial tissues in my suitcase. We can make do with these.”

The next morning, I rang for a maid, and told of our troubles of the night before. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said, blushing. “We’re just getting settled. Would you mind using the other bathroom?” And she opened a door that I’d thought led to a closet. Behind it was a bathroom, huge and sumptuous, an exact twin of the other, and furnished with every toilet convenience one could want.

It was at one of Marion’s first Sunday evening buffet parties that I became innocently involved in intrigue and crime. As we were sipping cocktails before dinner, vivacious Bebe Daniels came and sat down beside me to chat. After a few minutes, she suggested that we go upstairs and powder our noses. I said I didn’t need to, but she gave me a surreptitious poke in the ribs and a wink that told me something was up. Bebe was known to be enjoying herself hugely with two swains, Harry Crocker and Jack Pickford, who were said to be jealous of each other. As we went upstairs, Bebe confided that she had a secret rendezvous arranged with Harry Crocker in her room.

“I wanted you to come along, Aggie,” she said, “as a sort of chaperone, and so Jack won’t suspect anything.” Sure enough, when we stepped into the room, there was Harry waiting for her. Immediately the two grabbed each other’s hands and began to murmur impassioned love words. Feeling I was in the way, I retreated into one of the two bathrooms. Almost immediately there was a loud pounding on the bedroom door. Bebe called to me, “Aggie, go to the door. I’m sure it’s Jack.” And, as I rushed to answer the pounding, she and Harry disappeared into the other bathroom.

“Who is it?” I called without opening the door.

“Jack Pickford. Let me in. Let me in this instant. Why won’t you let me in?”

“Because, er, I’m not dressed,” I squeaked, forgetting that only three minutes before, Jack had seen me completely clad.

“If you don’t let me in, I’ll knock down this door,” roared Jack.

“Better do what he asks,” Bebe called from the bathroom. “We’ll try to give him some excuse.” I unlocked the door. Jack strode past me, his face contorted and ran into the bathroom shouting, “Harry, you double-crossing skunk, I’ll kill you!” Then came the sound of horrid blows, mingled with Bebe’s screams. I yelled for help. Guests came pouring in and men rushed to separate the fighting Harry and Jack. But it was too late! There was a blood-curdling scream from Bebe, and then Irving Thalberg and Jack Gilbert came out of the bathroom, carrying the limp body of Jack Pickford, whose face was covered with blood. Harry followed, clothes and hair disheveled, face grimly set.

“You vile beast!” Gloria Swanson stormed at Harry, more dramatically than she had ever played in her best role on the screen.

“He attacked me first,” said Harry. “I had to defend myself.”

“What did you hit him with?” demanded Irving.

“A chair,” moaned Harry.

“You’ve killed him. Murdered him in cold blood!” Adolphe Menjou said in a horrified voice. I shuddered, on the verge of hysterics. And then suddenly, Jack Pickford wriggled from the arms of his bearers, howling with laughter. Everybody began to laugh too. The “blood” was catsup, the whole affair a gag put on to scare me. As I was only a writer, they’d figured I’d be too dumb to catch on.

I was gullible at parties, and uncoordinated on the polo field. Will Rogers’ young sons, Bill and Jimmy, often played in the girls’ games. And Jimmy, then 11 years old, had a fleet little Arabian pony with which he bumped, rode past, and, at times it seemed, under me. Once, when Pinto resolutely refused to be pushed aside, the tiny Arabian reached up and took a good nip at my leg.

“Watch out, Aggie! Get off the line of play, Aggie. Hurry up, Aggie!” little Jimmy would shout continually. Between chukkers, Will took his son aside for parental reproof. He printed young Jimmy’s response in one of his last columns: “I know it’s not polite to call a married woman by her first name, but, Dad, it’s a fast game. I haven’t got time to shout, ‘Watch out, Mrs. Agnes Christine Johnston Dazey!’”

Possibly set off by Jimmy, the girls began kidding me. Phyllis Brunson said, “Aggie, if you’d only let Pinto keep going that time you were on the ball, you’d have scored a goal for sure.” “Yes,” said Bee Rapf. “When you dismounted, that pony didn’t actually sneer, but he sure did look ashamed of you.

“Look here, girls,” I tossed off airily. “I may not be much good at polo, but maybe that’s because the game’s not exciting enough for me. What I’m going in for now is steeplechase.”

“You steeplechase?” Phyllis Brunson was really shocked.

“But Aggie, what have you got to ride?” asked practical Bee.

“My Pinto,” I told them.

“That cold blood in a hurdle race?” Phyllis was even more alarmed.

“He’ll get by,” I said and threw my arms around Pinto’s neck. “We’re going to the Ladies Special next month.” My mind was set. What to lose? If I broke some bones, at least I’d get a rest in the hospital.

When I told Frank, he was wild. “You’ll break your neck and Pinto’s too,” he said.

“Oh, I don’t know. On Sunday rides, Pinto’s cleared every log or clump of bushes on the trail.

“What’s a log to a four foot hurdle?

“I’ve told all the girls I’m racing, and I won’t go back on my word.”

“You’re a goof,” said Frank. “But I’ll start training Pinto tomorrow. Saturday and Sunday morning I’ll work on you.”

My sweet pony turned out to have a kind of little rabbit jump. He’d rush full speed at a hurdle, curl up his legs, and clear the bar by about one inch and no more. Then he’d prance around, wanting to take the jump again.

A professional rider shipped her steeplechaser to the Uplifters stables for the race. This female centaur was a wizard at polo and jumping, and did hair-raising stunts for pictures, often doubling for daring male stars. Her mount was a great sorrel thoroughbred, and everybody expected her to cross the finish line many yards ahead of the rest of us. But Otto, our ex-jockey groom, solemnly assured me this would not be the case.

I invited a lot of friends to a breakfast party before the race: Louella Parsons and her daughter Harriet, a sweet shy-eyed girl who had just graduated from Wellesley, Marion Davies, Milton Sills and his lovely new wife, Doris Kenyon, Buddy Rogers, Mary Brian, Theda Bara and Charles Brabin, and some thirty others. Among them Ann Rork, starlet daughter of “The Rosary” producer, Sam Rork.

Ann was riding in the race too, and the guests fussed over her and me as though we were sacrificial victims bound for our doom. My movie friends never did understand too much about horses. In fact, one wide-eyed starlet at that party asked me, “Aggie, how do you play polo anyway? One hand for the reins, one for the mallet—what hand do you hold onto the saddle with?”

There were six races on the card. Frank rode in the second, broke away first, and kept two lengths ahead all the way, thus avoiding entanglement with a very bad spill when two riders and their horses tangled at a barrier. In the fourth, Tom Moore rode his fine Irish steeplechaser. The most dangerous leap of the course was on a curve around which the horses had to run and take a hurdle doing so. Five horses made this jump at the same instant. Tom was on the outside, and somehow he and his mount got pushed off the course and over the fence that circled the track. Tom landed in a ditch with his horse on top of him, its legs kicking in the air. But Tom crawled out from under, grinning and unhurt. And his horse wasn’t injured either. All this was exciting enough, but what the crowd was really waiting for was the finale—the race with the “movie girls” in it. Surely then something catastrophic would occur.

For this event I prepared by downing two large slugs of whiskey. And I prayed earnestly all the way through. The run took only a few minutes but it seemed like a lifetime to me, with each hurdle certain doom. It wasn’t until Pinto and I were safely over the last jump that I turned my head to look back. Miraculously, most of the horses were trailing. Only Ann Rork was riding neck and neck with me. I put everything I had into the last stretch, pounding at Pinto with my crop, but, unfortunately, also jerking at him with the reins in the same motion. I don’t think Ann pulled on her horse. I believe she was too petrified with fear to make any motions at all. Just as she crossed the finish line, half a nose in front of me, she fell off her horse in a heap.

Months later, I got it out of Otto why the lady professional and her fine thoroughbred finished seventh. The night before the race, he had thoughtfully forced his way into the stall of the professional’s horse and stuffed him with grain and water until he was lucky to be able to finish the race at all. After Otto had gone to all this trouble, he was certainly disgusted at me for not winning.

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